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USF law school students take on
death penalty cases in two states

St. Louis Bertrand Parish to celebrate 100 years

The Year of St. Paul: A look at Paul’s conversion

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OBITUARIES

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placeholder September 8, 2008   •   VOL. 46, NO. 15   •   Oakland, CA
USF law school students take on
death penalty cases in two states

University of San Francisco law students Ashley Connell, Lani Virostko, Brian McComas, Tiffany Danao and Natalie Davis pose outside the Louisiana Supreme Court in New Orleans. They participated in the Keta Taylor Colby Death Penalty Project working on cases in Louisiana and Mississippi.
CNS PHOTO/COURTESY OF USF

WASHINGTON (CNS) — This summer some students at the University of San Francisco’s law school put their book learning into practice when they joined the school’s Keta Taylor Colby Death Penalty Project, which places students with death penalty projects in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Professor Steven Shatz started the program in 2001 after hearing about projects being set up to handle death penalty cases in Louisiana and Mississippi. Shatz said he wanted “to do more than write about (the death penalty). I was too academic. I wanted to try to make a contribution, involve students to reform or abolish the death penalty.”

For Shatz, the program has two goals: that the students make a “real contribution” to the cases they are faced with during the internship and that they become educated about the “law and larger social context in which you have the death penalty.”

For many of the students participating in the program, not only was this their first extended stay in the Deep South, but it also was their first chance to work with inmates and, specifically, inmates on death row.

Tiffany Danao, a New Jersey native, spent her internship working in New Orleans.
“Seeing the cause you are working for in front of you” made the experience one of the most meaningful she has had, said Danao in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service.

The program helped to reinforce her interest in criminal defense and post-conviction work after finishing law school. “I don’t think it’s right to condemn someone to death,” said Danao. Her desire to see the death penalty abolished was reinforced.

In the eight years of the program, a majority of the students have not had the opportunity to see their case decided while they are working on it. For most, their case is decided months or even years later. However, this year, it was different.

Two pairs of students had their internships in Jackson, Miss. One pair arrived in June to enter what is known as the “eleventh hour” as one of their clients was scheduled to be executed in July. Despite their efforts, the man was executed as scheduled.

The other pair of students had the opposite experience: The case they handled ended when, just before his trial, their client accepted a plea bargain for a sentence of life without parole. In the death penalty case, the client was expected to be found guilty if the case had gone to trial.

Students Lani Virostko and Ashley Connell spent a great deal of time with the client, which enabled them to develop a bond with the man, whom they didn’t identify, as he mulled over the decision of whether or not to accept the plea bargain.

They met the family of their client but also the family of the murder victim.

“It’s a difference of life and death; you really see it’s not one-sided. You can relate to the victims and clients. There’s sadness on both sides,” said Virostko.

In preparation for the program, the students attended four training sessions led by Shatz. The sessions were designed to prepare the students for some of their experiences as well as familiarize them with the specifics of death penalty law.

 
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